My dad’s fight with cancer began nearly 4 years ago.
For me, my first experience of the illness that eventually devoured him, was a casual phone call where he chatted through the strain I could hear in his voice and told me not to worry. I put down the phone and then did a quick search on google that scared the life out of me. In his age range, with that cancer, 85% of people were dead within 6 months.
Whenever I felt sad or overwhelmed in the hard times much further down the road, I thought back to that google and reminded myself to say a silent thank you for all that extra time we had, and to think of all the other dads, mums, husbands and wives that did not get so far.
Back then, the spectre of cancer had no substance, it did not feel real. He did not look sick. In fact for the first few years the only thing that seemed to make him sick was the treatment… we were frightened of a word or a fear, frightened of dad dying.
It was shadowy fear that came late at night and in quiet unguarded moments. The thought sent me back to some childhood place, alone in my bed surrounded by a gruesome insubstantial murk. To imagine the world without him in it stretched my mind further that comfort. It was like trying to grasp the scope of the solar system or shrink myself to a set of random carbon blocks. Every part of me that was me resisted the idea whatever my mind said about its logic.
Back then, I did not imagine the slow creeping horrors that the cancer would bring. The slow process of life dropping away, of dad becoming a ghost. I could not have imagined a time when I started to think that there were worse things that death.
At first there were inconveniences. Scars that ached and pulled. A listing limp, jokes about pirates and shark bites to explain the missing chunk of leg.
Later the lump in the throat that hardened to hold out food.. so many happy times were left half formed without the meals shared, the sticky half-chewed glue that held our family life together. At first it was just some things and then less and less. The irritation of restaurant menus that seemed to offer no options. Then crying in the supermarket at the sight of biscuits dad had been able to eat just weeks before. The mountains of gooey cake I baked so that he would eat, moulding in the tins once he could no longer swallow even to humour me.
My dad and I used to go wander together. We would make our own paths through the hills and gently set the world to rights under the broad bowl of the upturned sky. The bracken and gorse were his youthful haunts and we discovered them again together, but the walks got shorter. He could only look at photos, listen to my adventures and hope for better days.
Our walks shrunk, shortened, stumbled and then stopped. Driving stopped. Standing stopped. So much was stopped. It felt as if every week was another ending, another little grief, another goodbye. In the last year, Dad seemed to shrink and age as so much dropped away. I could not feel half of what he felt, but I smarted at his many humiliations; the first time I carried a bag because he could not, the time he fell and I could not lift him up, the appearance of the potty, the upstairs rooms that became a foreign country.
We struggled to carry on making memories. To still be ourselves but to let each day count.
I counted my blessings. On our drives together I would think ‘maybe this will be the last time dad sees this’ and I would relish each view, each moment all the more.
Finally conversations were abridged, muddled and they too stumbled and stopped. I think that was the hardest loss for us to bear.
Putting together photos for dad’s funeral, I was shocked to see my dad well, plump, smiling. In shots six months ago when I had thought he was terribly sick, he looked so strong compared to those last days when no one wanted to take photos any more. He began becoming a ghost long before he died and oddly, in his death, I feel like I can start to remember who he was before.
As he got sicker we were all coping frantically, scurrying inside. Never quite letting ourselves mourn the little losses, determined to be strong for each other as more and more life dropped away.
I was with dad when he died, holding his hand. Within minutes, the thin grey wane man in the bed stopped being my dad, that image gave way and left space for other ones to return. I am glad to be able to remember who he had been once again: to remember my dad striding over the hills and eating bacon sandwiches.
I don’t know what I believe about where dad is now, but I like to think that that is exactly what he is doing… now he is no longer living like a ghost, maybe he is free to become himself again.
Dad and I often talked about the fact that living alone is not enough to make a life. For life you also need blue skies, love and a few good meals…